Review: ‘The President Is Missing’

Bill Clinton and James Patterson, 528 pages, Little, Brown and Company and Knopf, 2018

It is not unusual for an American president to write a book, either before or after his presidency. Theodore Roosevelt, in fact, was a professional writer before he became president, and John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage while he was a senator. But it is unprecedented for a former president to collaborate with a world-famous novelist to write a book that is best described as a “thriller.” The perpetrators in this project are Bill Clinton, the former president, and James Patterson, who holds the Guinness World Record for the number of first-place New York Times bestsellers.

Their creation, The President Is Missing, is so densely packed with surprises and mysteries that the plot would be difficult to summarize without revealing too much. But a critic can say, without the need for a spoiler alert, that Missing deals with cyber warfare — specifically, an imminent attack that will leave the entire United States without electricity or the internet. The president who must deal with this situation is Jonathan Duncan, who bears some resemblance to John McCain (Duncan was imprisoned and tortured in Iraq).

Much has been spoken and written about the crushing demands of the presidency, but Duncan has additional problems: he is grieving for his adored wife, who recently died of cancer; he has found evidence that a spy is operating in his inner circle; he has only two days at most before the cyber bomb explodes; and he himself is gravely ill with a rare blood disorder. When he tells his doctor that his latest treatment will have to wait for a couple of days, she replies, “You don’t have a couple of days, Mr. President. You might not even have one.” Duncan decides that the only way he can cope with the situation is to disappear — and he does.

During the 1960s, a book like this would probably be dismissed by the literati as “escape literature” or “brain candy.” But during the same era, many critics and professors also agreed that “characterization” was the supreme literary achievement. Even a perfectly dreadful play or novel could be saved by one superbly drawn character who seemed to walk off the page, who was complex and unique, yet consistent enough to be believable. (Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales is possibly a case in point.)

The President Is Missing features not one, but two such characters. The first is Duncan himself; the second is a young woman, known only as Bach, who is a professional assassin with a perfect record. She kills without so much as a shrug of regret, and she is not about to cancel her latest assignment just because she is pregnant with a daughter.

Aside from her work, her other obsession is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which soothes her nerves while she prepares for her next kill. She has a semiautomatic rifle named Anna Magdalena, after one of J.S. Bach’s daughters. But her taste in music rightly suggests that she might have a soft side. She plans to retire and raise her daughter “somewhere far away from all this. Her daughter will know love. She will know happiness. War and violence will be something she reads about in books or hears about on the news.”

Interesting minor characters turn up. Duncan’s nemesis, Speaker Lester Rhodes, schemes to get his daughter appointed to the Supreme Court. Vice President Katherine Brandt wants so desperately to be president that she has already begun rehearsing the oath of office — but she can achieve her goal only if Duncan is impeached and overthrown. Rounding out the cast is a cameo appearance by a grandfatherly Russian spy who could “look you in the eye and tell you that the world is flat, the sun rises in the west, and the moon is made of blue cheese, and he’d probably pass a polygraph test while doing so.”

Isaac Asimov once wrote an essay titled “The Little Tin God of Characterization,” in which he argued that ideas, not characters, are the most important elements in fiction, or at least in science fiction. (Ironically, Asimov himself created enough memorable characters to staff a modest starship.) But in addition to its characters, The President Is Missing gives a reader plenty to think about: Has America become dangerously dependent on its computers? Can Bach’s life and actions be justified in any way? Is the modern political world unfair to women? And in a book intended to arouse fear, here is the coldest chill of all: In spite of its improbabilities, The President Is Missing does not seem like fiction.

Carolyn Kane is a professor emerita of English at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. She is the author of the novel Taking Jenny Home, which was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2014. She lives in rural Door County, where she writes for the Peninsula Pulse and Door County Magazine.